Judging by the social media reactions to the very existence of a documentary about politician Anthony Weiner, the general public has pretty much had it with him. Who can blame them? It was bad enough when the loudmouthed New York Democrat derailed a promising congressional career in 2011 with a dumb Twitter sexting scandal. But when he risked ridicule to run for the mayor of NYC in 2013, more sexts were leaked, trashing Weiner’s early lead in the polls and disappointing the millions who were willing to overlook his past and support him. It’s hard to see Weiner as anything but a two-time loser. And, frankly, kind of a creepy one.
But it’s those who least want to see Weiner who most definitely should. Co-directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg aren’t likely to make Republicans into Weiner supporters or to get Democrats to forgive the man for letting his horniness undercut what might’ve been the left’s best rabble-rousing response to the Tea Party revolution. This film doesn’t lionize Weiner or justify anything he did. What it does is capture the frenzy of politics, the iron-clad egos of politicians, and the failure of the media to cover the parts of campaigning and government that actually matter.
A lot of what Weiner does so well is just a happy accident (or an unhappy one, depending on your perspective). Kriegman and Steinberg didn’t set out to document a scandal. Kriegman, an ex-staffer, took advantage of his personal connection to Weiner to gain a rare level of access as he mounted his mayoral campaign. The film was meant to be about Weiner’s attempted comeback, and much of its first half actually follows that formula. After briefly addressing the original sexting brouhaha, the documentary shows the candidate slowly building a staff and a volunteer operation, while also winning over the public with his fiery populist rhetoric and sharp wit. Kriegman and Steinberg are out in the streets for the meet-and-greets, in the office for the fundraising calls, and even in the ritzy apartment that Weiner shares with his wife, Huma Abedin. Rarely has a non-fiction film about politics been this intimate.
Then everything falls apart, and the filmmakers are still there, catching Weiner’s and Abedin’s public embarrassment. Weiner is ultimately as much a movie about her as it is about him, even while she seems reluctant to participate. As a trusted advisor to Hillary Clinton (who knows a thing or two about high-profile marital discord), Abedin has her own career and reputation to think about. While Kriegman and Steinberg never get her to go on the record with any direct personal statement about her husband’s habit of sending sexy pictures of himself to strangers, their cameras do always seem to find her, hovering in the back of crowded rooms with a pained expression on her face.
That pointed focus isn’t uncommon for Weiner, which is a “you are there” doc, shot and edited with a bent toward dramatic, cinematic storytelling. The film works as raw reportage, given that Kriegman and Steinberg were embedded with the campaign for months, collecting material without knowing how everything would turn out. The directors subtly interject themselves from time to time, as in the scenes that contrast the creation and finished product of media appearances. A contentious cable-news interview looks very different from the stark footage of Weiner recording his piece of the segment alone in a TV studio. The divergence between a political ad and the arguments and restarts that went into making it reveals how little our public experience of politicians has to do with who they actually are or what they actually do.
The most dramatic sequence in Weiner takes place on election night. Weiner’s loss is never in doubt, but as a publicity stunt, Weiner’s porn-star sexting partner, Sydney Leathers, decides to show up outside the site of his concession speech to confront him and Abedin on camera. The cutting back and forth between Leathers and the campaign team as the potential confrontation approaches is genuinely nerve-wracking. Whatever the viewer’s opinion of Weiner, it’s hard to call him a coward when he keeps going out to talk to voters even after he’s been disgraced a second time. It’s infuriating to see the media frame his dodging of Leathers as weaselly, as opposed to a case of him protecting his wife from a humiliation she didn’t deserve.
That in the end is what makes Weiner so valuable. The film never fully gets beneath what drives this man, who has strong political opinions but mainly seems addicted to arguing and attention. But Kriegman and Steinberg effectively indict the rivals, reporters, and cable hosts who seemed almost personally affronted that Weiner stayed in the race and kept trying to talk about the issues. There were legitimate questions raised about Weiner’s trustworthiness and judgment, but for the most part, the press went after him not because they were really outraged by his personal life, but because a sex scandal is easy to understand. Weiner is about the downfall of a politician, but it’s also about the smugness and hypocrisy of those who took him down mainly because dick pics make better copy than nuanced explications of zoning laws.